When the Lord has brought something positive into my life, He was blessing me. When the Lord has brought something negative into my life, He was blessing me greatly. This is a truth that I have realized recently and wanted to share with those who might appreciate it.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
For a long time, I had a tremendous problem with these verses. It seemed to me as if the only way to be obedient to what the Lord was commanding here was to get a full frontal lobotomy. “How am I supposed to be grateful when things are going badly for me? I can understand being grateful to the Lord for his blessings, but how can I be grateful for discipline and difficulties?” I knew the verse that difficulty brought about Godly character, but I dismissed the practice of being grateful through difficulty as impractical. My attitude as a Christian was similar to an attitude that a non Christian I know had before he became a Christian. When told that difficulties produced character, this young man responded, “Character? I got character up to my eyeballs. I am sick of character.”
Now in my life when I have a bad attitude it is always anchored by the most solid reasoning that I come up with. In this case, I remember my thinking was that one could only be grateful for things that one wanted to increase. “If I am grateful for those negative things, then I am really asking for more negative things in my life.” Since I couldn’t honestly want more negative things in my life, I was free from the burden of being grateful for the discipline and challenges of this life. After all, even Jesus didn’t want negative things as illustrated by his prayer at the cross “Lord if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matthew 26:39)
The compromise I made with myself was that I would pay lip service to God and thank him for the blessings that he would work through the negative things. I would likewise ask him not to count the sins of those who had injured me in the same manner as Steven. “Lord do not count this sin against them.” With lip service gratitude for the blessings and the occasional prayer asking God to forgive those who had injured me, I felt I was on solid ground and resisted any promptings toward a higher level of gratitude.
Over the last few weeks, I have been working on improving my relationship with the Lord. No matter how often I dismissed the feeling that I needed to be grateful for the negative things that the Lord has brought into my life, they kept coming back to me. Finally, I allowed myself to begin thanking God for the negative things he has brought into my life and my understanding has gradually increased as my heart has gradually softened. Does surrender always precede heart change and understanding?
Now that I have started to thank the Lord for the negative things in my past, I have come to realize my error. With my previous attitudes towards the negative things in my past, I have subconsciously been thinking that I was wearing the “white hat” as the good guy who was victimized by the evil done by someone else. When that person hurt me in the past, they were obviously in the wrong and I was obviously in the right. How could it be otherwise? I had a good attitude that was closer to God’s righteousness and they had a bad attitude that was clearly sinful. Though it was obvious that I had not been sinless in any given situation, it was equally obvious that I had been “better” than the other person and that therefore my suffering was unjust.
Where this thinking broke down was when I asked the question, “where did the virtues that I was so proud of come from?” As I examined myself, I found that almost everything that I like about myself has come about as a response to injury. Am I sensitive to the feelings of others? I like to think so but if I am it is only because I have been hurt in the past by those who should have known better. Am I honest with other people? I like to think so but if I am it is only because I have experienced the pain of being deceived. Am I generous with others? I like to think so, but if I am it is only because I have had my own hopes disappointed. In a very real way, everything in my life that I have to truly be grateful for has come as the product of painful experiences.
But the lesson went further than that when I asked the question, “If those character attributes that you value really do have an infinite worth that will be fully realized in the Kingdom of Heaven, then who bore the cost of your blessing?” It was the amazing trans-formative power released by the cross of Christ that takes sinful acts and turns them into blessings, so clearly God pays most of the cost. Praise the Lord forever! But who else bears the cost? Is it not that man who committed the sin and was thereby further separated from the Lord of Glory? Should I not earnestly entreat the Lord to have mercy on that man as he has had mercy on me? After all, without those acts I could never have seen the error of my ways and been drawn to the character of Christ.
It might seem like my current attitude is similar to my previous attitude, but there is an enormous difference. Previously I was grateful for the positive things that God had done for me through various struggles, but not for the struggles themselves. That is to say, I thought you could separate one from the other. “Well God could have taught me that lesson by having me win the lottery, but he chose to do it by having me have that negative experience. Well, okay. I am grateful for the positive lesson.” In reality, the blessings that I have cannot be separated from the pains that I experienced. The one is the flip side of the other thanks to the amazing power of God and so I must be grateful for both of them at the same time.
The advantage of this new attitude of gratitude that the Lord has given to me is the power that it gives me to forgive those who have injured me. How could I not forgive them when I know that they will experience separation from the Lord while I experience his eternal glory? This is what Paul means when he says that God has chosen some for common purpose and some for glory. Those who allow the negative experiences of this world to build the character of Christ within them will experience the eternal fruits of the River of Life. Those who allow the negative experiences of this world to make them evil and twisted will be forever denied the eternal gifts that are only possible if one dies to self.